The comment thread of a recent piece I wrote about the federal prison system contained a lively discussion about why federal-level law enforcement exists and what sorts of crimes it is designed to address. An example of its value comes from my home state of West Virginia, where the sole circuit judge for Mingo County has been arrested by federal agents for using his position to frame another man for various crimes. A grand jury foreman, a state trooper and another unnamed official were also part of the conspiracy.

Imagine yourself in the position of the man who is being framed for everything from stealing metal scrap to dealing drugs. Corrupt local and state officials are out to get you. What recourse do you have in that terrifying situation?

Public policy expert Phil Cook‘s answer, and it’s a good one, is that you have multiple, overlapping layers of law enforcement that help constrain corruption. The redundancy in U.S. law enforcement levels and ambits may be inefficient in other respects, but for fighting corruption it’s an asset because it’s pretty hard to buy off everyone with a dog in the fight (And of course it can go the other way than it did in Mingo County: A state or local enforcement body can sniff out corruption at the federal level).

Maybe that’s why the U.S. does better than many other countries at detecting political corruption. That said, we are not particularly good at punishing it consistently relative to other serious crimes. The same corrupt act can lead to a severe punishment in one case while getting laughed off as political business as usual in another. Contrasting the cases of former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Lauren Victoria Burke and Field Negro argue that Black politicians are punished particularly harshly for corruption.

A systematic study of Presidents in the Americas by Vidal Romero points to another factor that ought to be irrelevant but isn’t: The State of the Economy. Romero’s research shows that if you are leading a country and want to use your position to feather your own nest, you should pray for a good GDP, which seems to put voters in a more forgiving mood regarding political corruption.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys